I’d heard quite a lot about The Nether during its initial Royal Court run and so I was intrigued to see it for myself after it transferred to the West End. It is certainly a play that will be on my mind for quite a while due to its thought-provoking and indeed disturbing subject matter.
Jennifer Haley’s play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, is set in the not too distant future of 2050, where reality is not the only option for living – the growth of virtual reality realms has resulted in jobs, education and recreation heavily existing online. People log in to “The Nether” and can then spend hours in another world. Some are even choosing to “cross over”, effectively staying there forever with their bodies on life support.
Within this setting, a police detective Morris (Amanda Hale) is separately questioning two men in a sterile office. One she suspects is “Papa”, the creator of a realm in The Nether called The Hideaway, in which those who have darker, disturbing predilections towards children can be themselves and act these out with other adult participants, some of whom take the online form of a child in the realm, without consequence. The other man, Doyle (David Calder), is someone she hopes can provide information to prove her case against Papa.
Between these two sets of interrogation scenes we learn more about The Nether and are transported in to The Hideaway realm itself, experiencing it alongside a new visitor Mr Wingnut (Ivanno Jeremiah), which forces us to ask ourselves some very tough questions – will the real world be better and, more importantly safer, if such realms online are shut down, as Morris wants, or would this simply result in potential predators roaming the actual streets, when otherwise they could release their behaviour elsewhere. A remark by Papa that he’s never in the real world long enough to pay attention to, for example, his neighbour’s kids is very chilling. The idea of The Hideaway is indeed repulsive, however the thought of these people suddenly having to spend every hour of the day in the real world is incredibly terrifying.
The acting of the small cast is very good indeed, particularly Stanley Townsend as “Papa” and Perdita Hibbins who played the young girl in the Hideaway, Iris, at my performance, whose acting for someone so young was very impressive. I did wonder just how much of the play’s overall subject matter she had been made aware of and you cannot help but feel a deep sense of unease during some of her scenes. This may be a virtual reality realm being depicted, but it feels frighteningly real and uncomfortable as it unfolds.
The set design is also utterly superb and unlike anything else I have ever seen on stage. Together set designer Es Devlin and video designer Luke Halls have brilliantly created a design which allows the audience to absolutely feel the sense of entering the virtual world when The Hideaway scenes occur, through the use of computer graphics and a series of very clever projections in between the set changes, which very much bring the virtual world to life before the audience’s eyes. It’s also incredibly effective that The Hideaway is such a beautiful place – a pretty house, luxurious furnishings, glorious garden – it’s a place you prefer to the stark interview room and it makes the disturbing behaviours acted out in such a place all the more powerful and disturbing.
In an age where online content is growing ever more interactive and sensory, this is a hard-hitting topic to think about, but one which no longer seems totally impossible. Technological advances could very well mean something similar to The Nether could be the future one day and this gives the play added power. This is certainly not an easy play to watch, however it forces us to ask hard questions about the world we live in now and could potentially live in in the future and achieves this in an incredibly inventive and imaginative way.
The Nether continues its run at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25th April 2015. More information and ticket availability can be found on the production’s website.